Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Random Encounters in the Trollshaws

I'm a big fan of random tables. Assuming I curate the table correctly, a random table brings a feeling of exciting realness to the flow of a game - they ensure I'm not just writing a fantasy novel in front of my players.

However, during a game, I can only have so many *things* in front of me. I'm always thinking, "Wait, I know I have a d100 list of books around here, where did I put the Dungeon Alphabet?" In practice, I've become frustrated with how many good tables I know I own vs how many good tables I can bring to hand easily.

I'm trying to solve this problem with technology. I started experimenting with Perchance.

Here is a generator I made to run a Middle-earth game set in the Trollshaws:

If you're looking for a random encounter table to use for your next MERP game, voila! You can stop here. 

If you're curious about the individual entries (there are hundreds), you can check out the generator on Perchance and click "edit." They are mostly stolen from d4caltrops and glassbirdgames, but curated to ensure a pure Tolkienian aesthetic.

If you're interested in the "theory" of my random encounter designs, read on!

Making random encounters

Art by Alan Lee

I talked in In Search of Better Travel Rules how random encounters that are just "Everyone makes a Travel check to navigate the marshes or takes 1d6 HP damage" are boring. No matter what the flavor is, rolling dice and taking an HP tax is not an interesting encounter. Random encounters need choice to be interesting.

In Walking Holiday, I laid out the basic procedure that I use: wandering encounters are combined with static, landmark encounters to create the scene the players find when they travel to a new location. Wandering encounters are basically Necropraxis's Overloaded Encounter Die. (Schwew, that's a lot of references.) 

Consider the troll scene in The Hobbit. This is actually a super gameable scene. The trolls all have names - they're not just Troll 1, Troll 2, and Troll 3. They are a strong enemy that has treasure, but must be fought or dealt with through stealth. They can be negotiated with somewhat - they even argue about whether to let Bilbo go at first. They have an obvious weakness to be exploited. 

Would that every encounter on a random table was so rich with possibility.

For the wandering encounters in this generator, there are four possible types: 

  1. Curiosity: These are basically "nothing happens," but framed to give context and flavor to the environment.
  2. Sign: These are hints at hazards or monsters that live in this area. Because there are only about a dozen of these, these programmatically happen only about half as frequently as other encounter types.
  3. Travel Event: These are scenes that provide open-ended problems to avoid a hazard or gain some reward. There are about twenty of these.
  4. Encounters: These are scenes with friendly or unfriendly NPCs. There are hundreds of these.

Each time an encounter is rolled, it is marked off of the list. Your generator won't give you that result again until you refresh the page.

For Encounters, it's vital that these are never framed as "1d4 red dragons." Some random tables try to randomly provide activities for the monsters and this can sometimes produce weird results like "3 skeletons are dancing." Luckily, d4caltrops provides lots of inspiration here as they have d100 monster activities for each creature in the Monster Manual (including interesting variations on only barely different monsters - such as pirates vs buccaneers). 

Encounters should be a mix of both friendly and non-friendly NPCs. Moreover, almost no entry is "1d4 starving wolves attack." Almost everything can be talked to, almost everything can be handled outside of combat. 

The generator is doing a lot of work here. Each monster is assigned a type (hill troll vs stone troll), an appropriate number, and an activity based on the time of day. Friendly NPCs are given names. Trolls occur frequently (it's a region called the Trollshaws after all) but only occur at night.

This generator was made as an experiment. If I was going to spend more time on it, I'd probably bake a weather hex flower into it and give the unfriendly NPCs names as well.

Anyway, I hope there's something worthwhile here for you!


  1. You might see the dancing skeletons as an incongruity, I see it as a jumping off point to construct an interesting encounter. Imagine the players stumble upon a performance of the danse macabre - do they join in? Go around it? Break it up?

    1. Perhaps a cooler combination than I had intended. Certainly you can imagine *some* combination of monster activities that would infringe on your aesthetic!

  2. I appreciate this a lot. I'll use this the next time I run Middle-Earth Adventures!

    Thank you for reducing travel to choices instead of a trial of status effects.

    Any chance of integrating some of the Adventures in Middle-Earth materials? :)

    1. I'm glad there's something worthwhile here for you!

      Obviously being a Tolkien nerd is like 50% of my personality, so I expect some more things one day that will be applicable for your AiME needs. I probably won't write anything specifically for that system *specifically,* though.

      I do have some plans to write more *interesting* Travel Encounters based on the ones from TOR's Journeys and Maps supplement, trying to turn what I find boring encounters into good ones. I think work like that will always be worthwhile.

    2. Oh no, I would never wish anyone to actually *write* something for AiME, perish the thought. Things like the system neutral stuff above are brilliant.